How to Help Your Children As You Organise Child Residency

Parents separating and sharing custody can be a difficult time for a child. It’s important to make sure you communicate with them clearly, and listen carefully to their needs during this period.

Please note: this article describes the legal position in England and Wales, and not all of the information applies to Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Things can be unsettling for a child when their parents split up. Children can pick up on bad feelings between their parents, and sometimes even blame themselves for the break-up.  They may feel pressurised to choose one parent over the other, or do what they think will please mum or dad. Even if you remain on good terms with your ex-partner, these issues sometimes cause problems when you share custody of your children.

How can you help your children?

One way of making shared custody easier for your kids is to listen carefully to them when making arrangements. Involve them in the decision-making process about where they will live. Think about what arrangements would help them stay in touch with friends and family? Which school would be best for them? Can they stay at the same school if they have to live elsewhere? You should be honest with your child and ask for their input, but bear in mind their age and ability to understand.

Try not to just speak instead of listening to your children. Let them know that it’s OK to be upset or angry. Try to set aside how you feel about your ex, so you can talk calmly with your children without influencing how they feel about their other parent.  For example, it’s better to ask ‘would you like to spend equal time with mum and dad?’ rather than ‘you’d rather stay with mum, wouldn’t you?’

It is important to set aside animosity and remind your children that both parents love them. Try and be reassuring, but don’t be tempted to promise them that it will be possible to see both parents regularly if this is not true. CAFCASS’s co-parenting hub has plenty of useful tips.

Why is this important?

Studies have shown that children who remain involved with both parents do better emotionally and developmentally than those who do not.  This doesn’t mean that they have to split their time evenly between both parents, though a shared residence approach might work well for some families. In many cases it can be best for a child to live most of the time with one parent but still see their other parent regularly.

How do you make a decision?

Separating parents often find it useful to agree a parenting plan or visitation schedule, setting out in writing the details of the time your children will spend with each parent.  Be careful not to simply present your kids with this plan without talking to them first and making sure that it reflects what they want.  If you are not on speaking terms, a family law solicitor can negotiate with your ex on your behalf, and help you draw up such a plan.
In some cases, it won’t be possible to agree on a residency plan.

One option when this happens is family mediation. A family mediator is someone who is trained to speak with you and your partner (and your child, if the child is happy to do so) to help everyone reach agreement. A skilled mediator can help a child who is upset or uncommunicative to communicate with their parents.  Mediation is also often quicker, cheaper and more effective than going to court.

The Family Mediation Council can help you to find a suitable mediator.  Legal aid is sometimes available for mediation if your income is low.